how to tell if a company culture will be a bad fit

featured-on-usnIf you’ve ever worked somewhere that made you miserable, you know how important it is to check out the company before accepting a job there. But that’s easier said than done – companies don’t usually make it easy to peek behind the curtain and see what working there will really be like.

But there are clues throughout the hiring process that can tell you whether this is somewhere you’ll be happy working or not. Over at U.S. News & World Report today, I talk about how to figure it out. You can read it here.

{ 53 comments… read them below }

  1. Employment lawyer

    Good article. I’ll add one general issue:

    QUANTIFY, CLARIFY, AND CONFIRM.

    Failure to do that is the biggest mistake people make. And not only during a job search. Speaking as a lawyer, a failure to communicate is the largest mistake that people make in general and is the number one reason behind most legal disputes.

    Avoid words such as “usually,” “often,” “mostly,” “probably,” and “rarely.”

    BAD QUESTION: “How often do you stay late?”
    BAD ANSWER: “Not very.” (Meaningless. But that’s the fault of the questioner.)

    GOOD QUESTION: “How many times have you stayed past 5:00 in the last two months? Is that standard for other employees?”

    BAD QUESTION: “Do you get to take vacation?”
    BAD ANSWER: “Yes, it usually works out.”

    GOOD QUESTIONS:
    How many employees end up carrying over vacation every year? (this cues you on how easy it is.)
    How many vacation days did my predecessor take? (this helps for your particular job.)
    How many other employees are in my department? How are multiple vacation requests dealt with? (Some companies only allow one person per department to take vacation. Others assign by seniority. Others do both.)
    What is the company policy regarding vacation time in the major holiday seasons, and before/after major holiday weekends?
    Are there people who I will be covering for, and whose vacation time will impact mine? (Some companies don’t like underlings to take vacation at the same time as the boss. Which seems reasonable… until you find out that your boss routinely claims Xmas week, July 5, Labor Day weekend, and Thanksgiving Friday.)

    1. Christine

      While your suggestions are excellent, I would think you wouldn’t want to focus so much on work hours and vacation time until the offer stage, or at least until you’re one of the final candidates. I’ve always been taught that employers want to know what you can do for them, not what they can do for you (i.e. in terms of benefits and perks).

      1. Employment lawyer

        I agree–I’m just using those as examples of “quantify, clarify, and confirm.”

        1. Lydia Navarro

          Very cool, I figured you would ask these during negotiations stage. Wonderful stuff. I’ll be bookmarking this for sure.

      2. Vicki

        Hmmmm.
        On the other hand, if people work 60+ hour weeks standard and rarely take vacation, I would want to find that out well before the “offer” stage. because it would save everyone time.

        “employers want to know what you can do for them, not what they can do for you”. True, but keep in mind that the potential employer is only half of the interview pair. _I_ want top know what they will provide for me and part of that is a satisfactory working environment. If the culture is a bad fit, it’s best to find out early.

          1. Anonymous Three

            Amen to this Vicki! I left a job in January due to this issue. Thought I did my homework in the new firm and even asked about it (60 hour work weeks and ease of taking vacation) but they weren’t truthful. So it may be better for candidates to reach out to people who left the company and may be 2nd or 3rd connections on LinkedIn.

      3. Jessa

        Yeh these are definitely offer-stage examples but they’re good ones and ones I wish I’d asked at some jobs I’ve been in.

  2. A. Noni Mouse

    There are definitely some great tips here! I’d also like to add that a mismatched cultural fit isn’t always a bad thing. I’ve been at my job for just over 3 months now and there were quite a few “warning signs” during the interview process, which I considered and then ignored due to my desire to work with this particular organization. It’s a very open and collaborative environment, which can also mean that it takes FOREVER to come to an agreement and get something done. It’s also a fairly casual environment, which is something I have never experienced before. I’m a very Type A personality, so I was pretty miserable for the first couple of months (it doesn’t help that I’m in an administrative position, so I’m constantly being asked for information that doesn’t yet exist or hasn’t been confirmed). However, in the past month or so, I have adapted to the culture and it has helped me quite a bit, both personally and professionally. I’ve learned to relax and accept that not everything has to be done perfectly and immediately. I obviously still get frustrated, but not nearly as often.

    Of course, that’s not always the case! Some cultures are such bad fits that it’s impossible to work there without wanting to rip your hair out. But in my case, it just happened to work out. It was a completely intentional mismatch on my part, though, so that’s probably what made the difference.

    1. KC

      I really like your point here. It’s absolutely true that you can learn and grow from working in a place that puts you a little bit outside of your comfort zone.

      That doesn’t mean that you should put yourself in a position where you feel extremely uncomfortable, but rather that it’s good (especially early in one’s career) to be flexible enough to adapt to various work environments and people.

    2. Elizabeth West

      I always thought I would love a job where I’m on my own and my time is flexible. And I do, but BOY it’s weird not to have to check in all the time. I try not to bug my boss too much (she really doesn’t care), but it’s hard not to. I’m so used to asking permission for everything!

      1. Lydia Navarro

        Elizabeth, it is funny. But it’s also kind of a cool feeling wouldn’t you agree? The first time I was in that position was my second job after graduation. My first boss was not only the World’s Worst Boss EVER, he was also a terribly micro-managing control-freak.

        So imagine how strange it felt to go to my second job and be told, we want YOUR input and we want you to set your own goals and meet them how YOU want to. My boss there actually had to have a couple formal meetings with me initially to remind me that it was a-OK to set my own goals! But I fell in love with it and to this day I seek work that allows me to be what in cliched terms is called “an independent self-starter.”

  3. Lora

    I would add, if the interviewer has been there for more than a couple of years, ask how the company manages change, or how the organization has changed since they started. Because in these modern times, there are enough mergers, acquisitions and senior management changes that you can start at a company with Culture X and end up at a company with Culture Y within a year. This has happened to me at three jobs now, and sometimes Culture Y is maybe not a perfect fit but it was at least OK–except the change itself was so poorly handled and implemented that it was absolute torture going through the process.

    “Tell me about a time when you resolved a conflict” is my other favorite. Good managers have had to do this and will come up with ready examples. Crummy ones give you a blank stare. One even told me he had never had to resolve a conflict in 10 years of management: He turned out to be a bully who simply shouted at anyone who disagreed until they went away.

    1. Ed

      I’ve had this experience before while contracting. Company A treated contractors like employees for the most part (outside of what work was assigned). Other than the color of our badges, you would have never known we were contractors. We were acquired by Company B who treated contractors like disposable objects. I was never even referred to by my name. Anytime I fixed something or helped someone, I was referred as “some contractor”. I feel like that experience gave me some insight into what it must be like to come over here on a visa as a contractor.

      They eventually started letting all contractors go to cut costs but kept me because I was working on an important project. I would routinely come to work on Monday morning to find my badge disabled because my manager had to send in an email every 30 days to keep it active and he often forgot. That was a constant reminder that my time was limited. I lined up another gig and turned down their offer of an extension about a month before my project ended. There was little doubt in my mind I would be cut the day after the project ended so I don’t feel bad about leaving them hanging. I heard my leaving set the project back 4 or 5 months to get someone else in and up to speed.

      My staffing company was really pissed because I didn’t “finish the contract” (that they would only extend 30 days at a time) but there are a million staffing companies. If I had been here on a visa I probably couldn’t have left that job because the staffing company would have been my sponsor.

  4. Lori

    I also think it’s important to be very observant during the interview process of other employees. Sometimes this is difficult, if the conference room where the interview is being held is right by the reception area, but if you get to take a bit of a walk throughout the office…look around! Do employees seem frazzled? Chilled out? Are people wearing headphones? Do they look stressed out? If you’re interviewing around lunch time, are employees eating at their desk, or going out somewhere?

    1. Job seeker

      I could not agree more. When someone shows you what they are about, believe them. Intuition is there for a reason. It is there, you just have to listen and pay attention to it.

    2. Kelly

      I’d definitely agree with that. I got a job with a state university in my target field (libraries) after over 4 years of job hunting. During that time, I’ve worked in both retail and offices. I currently work at a department store that has 2 sister stores in the town. I interviewed at one for a transfer last week while I was looking for an apartment and very much notice the contrast with the store I work at. I just want to work one or two Saturdays a month and my transfer wasn’t approved due to that request. I also don’t think it was the right fit for me. The HR woman wasn’t the most welcoming or warm person and she kept me waiting 20 minutes. During that 20 minutes, not one associate asked me if I needed any help or said hello to me. I also notice how lax she was in enforcing the dress code and that there were a number of associates’ dress who would have been sent home to change at the store I work at. Also, most people at my store will acknowledge and greet people we see waiting at the office whether they are waiting for someone from the store or just resting their feet after shopping. I think I dodged a bullet there and maybe the other store will work out for me. I’m also thinking about waiting until after a month and I have gotten adjusted a bit to the change.

  5. Erik

    Thank you for the list, Alison.

    I’m a big fan of #1, #4, and especially #5 & #6.

    For #6 – I turned down a job offer sometime ago because my gut told me this wasn’t for me. I had some concerns about the job before the offer, which weren’t really addressed that well. I’m glad I walked away. At least I left them on a good note.

    Glassdoor is a good starting point, but as with anything you have to read between the lines and filter the posts that were obviously put up there by HR or the boss to make their environment more appealing than it really is. Looking for patterns is key there.

    I always treat the interview process as a two-way street. How I’m treated then is a window into the company. If the process is dysfunctional, than that would reflect on the employer as well. I’ve dodged several bullets from that alone.

    1. Anonymous

      ^ Glassdoor is an invaluable resource but I think the wisest course is to take it with a grain of salt. When people give reviews, they rarely are objective. On the other hand, if the majority of reviews and interview experiences were negative, it’s definitely something to note.

      1. Lydia Navarro

        I learned the hard way when I had to get a disgruntled person on my team (at an old job) to take a glassdoor review down. He gave us 1 star and said we sucked and we only pay him 40K when we actually paid him 50% more than that. I use it somtimes when looking at really big companies to get a feel and a “ballpark” salary range but it’s no good for sure for companies of less than maybe 75 or 100 people total.

      2. Erik

        That’s why I always treat anything on the web with a grain of salt. You always have to read between the lines. The interviews are always of interest to me.

  6. Christine

    A definite must-read for job seekers, both first-time and experienced. I just wanted to clarify one thing:

    #4 – “interviewers who are unprepared to talk with you and not getting back to you until weeks after they said they would” – While I agree that this can certainly be a warning sign, haven’t we talked here before how hiring can sometimes take longer than expected and that things sometimes can get mixed up (in the case of an interviewer not being prepared)? I’m guessing that the key is HOW the employer handles such disruptions (e.g. are they sincerely apologetic?)

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Yeah, the key is the part about “if the employer handles the hiring process in a disorganized and chaotic way.” If they’re keeping you updated, that’s a different impression than if they’re cavalierly missing their own deadlines and not bothering to get back to you to update you.

    2. SC in SC

      You’re right it is very common for the hiring process to take longer than expected. However, I think the point here is that you should not be put on hold for weeks after the target date without hearing something whether it’s to cut you loose, make an offer or tell you that the process is taking longer than expected. You’re also right that how the company handles the communication will also be an indicator or how they treat their employees.

  7. Felicia

    Great advice! Wish I’d read it and followed it before I took a job that i hated. Especially how disorganized and chaotic the hiring process was – the company ended up doing all business in a disorganized and chaotic way.

  8. Christine

    Adding:

    #6 – Listening to my gut–or NOT listening–is probably the biggest I’ve made over the years. I tend to overreact due to anxiety, so whenever I get a twinge of doubt, I tend to brush it off, thinking “It’ll be a long time before I get another offer; this isn’t perfect and I’m probably just nervous, so I’ll give it a shot”.

    1. Christine

      Just realized I’m missing a word in that post….it should read, “Listening to my gut–or NOT listening–is probably the biggest mistake I’ve made over the years”.

      1. Ruffingit

        Totally been there Christine. I’ve brushed off the concern/intuition/glaring red flag only to pay for it in the end with a horrible work environment.

        One incident that sticks with me is a job I took in August one year. I needed a job and a friend got me a position at her workplace. I remember showing up on day one and while filling out the paperwork, I thought “I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to work here.” That literally went through my mind along with the pain in my stomach saying “Stop. Don’t do this.”

        I lasted until October when I couldn’t take it any longer and I had to quit. The upside was that I met some great friends who I am still friends with today 6 years later. Those friends all left the place too and were never happy with it either.

        So yeah, takeaway point here – LISTEN TO YOUR INTUITION!

  9. TRB

    I agree with the advice. But just curious – what about at a start up/super new company? There isn’t really a precedent. Do you just go with the flow when they’ve been in business less than a year and you would be the first in your position?

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I think the key is to believe what they’re showing you about themselves. So if they’re showing you that they’re chaotic — as start-ups often are — believe it, and know that’s what it’ll be like if you work there. You might be fine with that, or not — but the key is to see it for what it is and decide accordingly.

    2. Lora

      See if you can find out what the owner/senior managers/founders did before they started the company, who the funds are coming from and what their track record is. For example, some venture capitalist groups are very involved in the management of the companies they fund, while others are more hands-off, so it can be helpful to check on how the other companies funded by that VC group have turned out. And you can look at the board of directors and see how other companies whose boards they have served on have performed.

      That stuff is usually Google-able, and often the startup will post it right on their website. I’m thinking here of the various spin-off companies that come out of my local universities–some researchers are pretty solid and their companies do OK, others are known for being flaky.

  10. am

    I had interview that was an immediate bad fit. The head person went into a rampage about how he hated people talking about their pets at work. I ended up getting a verbal offer from what would be my direct supervisor with a super low salary and weirdly phrased options so I asked for a a written offer and would get back to them before the end of the week. I never got a written offer but I called a day and a half later to still accept at my parents urging since I had just graduated with a liberal arts degree and in their mind a job was a job. The contact informed me they were already interviewing more people and would get back to me. A year later I still haven’t heard from them but in all honesty I dodged a massive bullet and I’m in a much better job.

  11. Anonymous

    Slightly OT: Speaking of hiring managers, I just got back from a panel interview in which the hiring manager asked me the following question that spun me for a loop for sure: “How do you think you did today?” Struck practically dumb, I stammered the following, or a facsimile therefo, “Well, ah, I, ah, dunno, I, ah, think that maybe I did sort of ok, but…You get the gist.

    Why this question?

      1. Anonymous

        Pretty certain she wanted me rate my own performance. Of course, I believe she was hinting that I was screwing up.

    1. just me

      I’ve had the same question and it also threw me for a loop. I ended up responding honestly “I think the interview went well.. ” and it allowed me the opportunity to revisit some positive points they brought up as well as ask if they had any other questions or concerns for me. I don’t know if it worked, I’m still in the process hoping for an offer! *crossing fingers*

      1. Anonymous

        Let’s hope we’re not vying for the same job, otherwise I certainly hope you epically failed in your reply. LOL

      1. The Other Dawn

        That was my first thought also. Some people are completely oblivious and others a fairly tuned in to their strengths and weaknesses.

    2. A Bug!

      As just me says, if there were strong spots in your interview you could highlight them, or if there were weak spots you could address them (especially if you tripped over yourself due to nerves and not lack of competence).

      It might be helpful to frame the question in your head in terms of the immediate goal of your interview. Assuming that you’re not seeing any red flags yourself, the ultimate goal is to get the job. But the immediate goal is to show the employer your best you. If you were successful in doing that, then you had a good interview, even if you don’t ultimately get the job, because you have no control over who else applies.

      So if I didn’t think there was anywhere I screwed the pooch during the interview, I might say something like “I’m confident that I’ve shown you the value I can bring to your company, and in that respect I think this interview went well.”

    3. FreeThinkerTX

      I’m in Sales and have had this question before, more than once. It seemed they wanted to know how well I read other people and their reactions to what I was saying, which is important in Sales. For example, if you flat-out bombed the interview but said you thought you nailed it, it would show a huge disconnect in the ability to size up an audience and know what is important to them. The reverse would be true, too: If you did very well but couldn’t see that you did, that can be a problem as well.

  12. Lisa

    I took a job based on how happy everyone in the company was. It never occurred to me that I should only look at how happy the people in my dept were. I left after 6 months as I was making myself ill with stomach issues, because it was sooo awful. The receptionist and the other departments was beaming with happiness, but my department was miserable.

  13. anon

    I think I’ve always had a pretty good idea of what the company would be like based on an interview. The problem is usually not that job seekers are unaware of potential problems at companies, but that they are so desperate for a job they feel they have to accept anyway. The first job I accepted out of college, the receptionist left me a voicemail on my phone asking me to come in for an interview, and I almost laughed to myself, because her voice was the most monotone, bored, lifeless voice I had ever heard. I could tell from looking at the website that this was not an innovative company. I ended up taking the job to break into the field I wanted to be in, and I was unhappy much of the time because things moved so slowly and I never had enough work to do. I still think it was a good decision for me though, because it was a tough field to break into, and I learned a lot of skills from the job. It’s easier to use discretion when you already have a job, but sometimes you have to roll with the punches and take what you can get.

  14. jesicka309

    I always try to screen for culture more tha anything in my interviews (particularly trying to find out if it’s a growth role, or a stepping stone, and how much progression happens within the dept.) but I find that nearly all interviewers give you a limit of THREE questions. I don’t know whether it’s because the roles I’m going for are fairly entry level, but after being burnt a few times, I really want to know about what previous employees have gone on to do etc. but it seems I only manage to get a question about the hours, ask about the daily duties of the role, and maybe ask about the previous employee in the role before I’m cut off. :(

  15. Marie

    Really like this list, especially listening to your gut. About a year ago, after being abruptly terminated by CrazyBoss, I interviewed for a position which looked great on paper. During the interview, however, my interest in the position began to wane, as I picked up on a variety of signals (vague, evasive answers to my questions; a defensive vibe regarding people who had previously held the position; less than enthusiastic interviewers). I brushed off these signals and felt a little better after the second, more normal interview, after which I was told via email that I was one of their finalists. However, after my references were contacted, all 3 of them (independently of each other) commented to me how odd the hiring manager seemed, that the questions he asked THEM seemed unusual, and that they felt they were being grilled. Huge red flag to me because all of my references were highly respected and intelligent former colleagues/supervisors of mine, whose opinions I trust and who I knew would give me glowing references. So not only was I getting the uneasy vibe from the hiring manager, but my references were as well! THEN, the organization’s email communication with me, which up to that point had been prompt, completely stopped. Just….nothing. They never contacted me to reject me or anything. In fact, I would periodically check my online application status just for kicks (months later), and it would still say “pending”, though I could plainly see on their website that the position had been filled. Annoyingly rude.

    The best thing, though, is that about a week later, I interviewed for a great position at a wonderful organization, where I was ultimately hired and couldn’t be happier. And as soon as I began the interview process with them, I just knew that it was a perfect fit for me.

    I’m a huge believer in intuition, but it still amazes me how accurate those gut feelings can be!

  16. Anonymous

    I wish this advice was around 3 years ago before I took my current job. In hindsight, there were red flags but I ignored them. However, in my recent job searches, I’ve paid a lot closer attention to my gut and the culture.

    Oh well. I know what to do differently this time around.

  17. Ruffingit

    Just a tip – if you interview for a job on a Friday and you’re offered it then show up on Monday to find out the entire staff has been fired with the exception of the company president’s husband, you should leave immediately. Yup, that happened. I should have known when I talked to some of the employees and they all looked like they wanted to unload like it was a therapy session.

  18. mooseknuckle

    What if you find yourself in a bad fit? I’ve taken many jobs where I was desperate to get work….. i know i’m not the only one… can someone ever “recover” from that and succeed? :-/

    1. Anonymous_J

      I’d like to know this too, as ending up with a bad fit can leave one without recent references!

  19. The Other Dawn

    I would add to #4 to be wary if they call the very next day (or same day) with a job offer. It’s possible you dazzled them and they want to fill the position quickly, but it’s also possible that you were the ONLY applicant, which means either a crappy company to work for with high turnover, or they don’t do their homework when hiring (check references, etc.). This probably doesn’t apply to a bigger company, but I’ve seen it happen in small companies.

    This article was great timing for me as I may be having to look for a job soon. And I haven’t interviewed in 17 years.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      It would be pretty rare for there to only be one applicant for a job if it were advertised — I’ve never seen that! I’d be more likely to assume they were moving quickly for other reasons — whether legit ones (you were the last to be interviewed and they knew you were the right candidate and didn’t feel like playing games) or bad ones (didn’t check references, not being thorough, etc.).

      1. The Other Dawn

        I’m sure it’s rare at most companies, but it’s happened to mine a few times. Maybe it was just bad timing in the job market, because we advertised. We haven’t hired the same day though.

        It happened to a friend of mine also. She interviewed and got the offer the same day . She was shocked and the hiring manager told her she was the only applicant, even though they’d posted the job weeks ago. At the time she didn’t think anything of it (she just wanted a job). But it turned out to be a bad fit (high turnover, not enough work to do, crappy boss) and she eventually left. It was clear the company didn’t have it together and had no idea about the volume of work going on.

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